In Artcentric Engagement I discussed a kind of engagement in which an arts organization is attempting to bring people to it. As I said there, nothing is wrong with that; it’s simply not the goal toward which I and many others in the arts who are deeply committed to community engagement are working. Upon a very little reflection, it becomes clear that the engagement about which I write and speak is intended to change the organization or at least some of what it does or thinks. And so, I’m beginning to experiment with the concept of “transformative engagement” as the descriptor of this type of relationship building.
The root of such engagement is community learning. By that I mean learning about the needs, interests, even personality of the community the arts organization is attempting to engage. Applying that understanding to the work of an arts organization will at a minimum allow different kinds of thoughts about artistic content and new ways of imagining organizational functions. For example, if sales, fundraising, and engagement are all based on building relationships, maybe they could work together more or we might re-think some of what we do. If sales needs to be more closely tied to relationship formation and maintenance, how might that change the sales process? (One possibility would be not to leave it solely in the hands of some of the lowest-paid staff members–box office employees. Train them better, pay them better?)
If an organization is not doing anything differently as a result of its engagement efforts, it’s not focused on the community. It’s focused on itself. And it is only transformative engagement that builds an arts organization’s relevance. And without relevance, indispensability is a pipe dream.
For what it’s worth, this is the last Engaging Matters post for 2015. Have a great holiday. We’ll be back in the New Year.